Domestic Violence Cases in Refugee Law: It’s Time for Reform

December 2, 2014

According to an immigration judge in the United States, “Domestic violence is private in nature and is not the type of politically motivated harm entitled to international protection under the Refugee Law.” According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), husbands are the biggest threat to many women in Africa.

South Africa has the highest rating of violence against women. Domestic violence is the “most urgent, pervasive and significant protection issue for women in west Africa,”declared the IRC. In Liberia and Ivory Coast, there are no laws against domestic violence. In these countries if a woman marries an abusive husband, she cannot simply leave. If she does, she will likely face societal ostracization, extreme economic hardship, and a continuous well-founded fear of future harm due to the lack of government protection from her abusers.

Immigration courts have been wrong in ruling victims of domestic abuse should not be protected by refugee law. The international community has recognized that domestic violence is not just a private matter or a random crime, but rather it is a violation of fundamental human rights. Domestic violence is borne out by societal culture. It is political.

The Refugee Convention does not specify sex or gender as one of the grounds of persecution; therefore, women searching for refugee relief due to domestic violence must go an extra step and prove that the violence they endured was on account of being part of a specific social group or because of their real or imputed political opinion. We need to find a way to make it easier for women to gain asylum in the United States. Increased attention and funds must be paid to help the women in these situations.

Until 2009 there were no successful domestic abuse refugee cases. Finally, in Matter of R-A, it was recognized that a respondent could be eligible for asylum because she was a victim of extreme domestic violence and was part of the social group “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave the relationship.” In another case that year, an Immigration Judge granted asylum to a woman who suffered through domestic violence and was part of the social group “Mexican women in domestic relationships who are unable to leave.” Despite these wins, the scope of women who fit into these eligible social groups is very narrow. There is no binding precedent for African women escaping persecution due to domestic violence. Because of this lack of precedent, judges have tremendous discretion in ruling which domestic violence cases, if any, warrant a grant of asylum.

In 2009 an immigration judge determined that the group, “Zimbabwean women who assert their independence from domineering and abusive male partners, including former spouses” was not a protected social group. It is unacceptable that immigration judges have taken it upon themselves to reject the clear intentions of past precedent-setting cases regarding domestic abuse. It is unacceptable that the system is sending back women back to homes where they will inevitably be persecuted. More legally binding cases granting African women fleeing from domestic violence should be fought for.

In addition, more pressure must be put on the Department of Homeland Security to create a more just system. According to data from 1999, “10 of the 24 judges most likely to grant asylum were women… The overwhelming majority of Immigration Judges - 72 percent - [were] men.” How can we expect unprejudiced decisions for women when majority of the people in charge of making these decisions are men?

In order to really use the United States’ power to advance and respect the rights of females internationally, we have to start outside of the courtroom. In order to even get to the United States, an asylum applicant must have some kind of access to funds, as well as information about the refugee system; however, most women and girls whose rights are being violated in developing countries do not have access to these. In order to assist with this issue, resources should be placed into helping existing/creating NGOs that help victims of domestic abuse in African countries and internationally.

Of course NGOs will not solve all the problems, but they will undoubtedly be helpful to numerous women. The best results will be received if the NGOs’ initiatives are conducted in a productive and holistic manner. This means they should provide more than just legal help, but also provide domestic abuse victims with emotional, psychological, and medical support.

Victims of domestic abuse deserve international protection, and hopefully with more pressure to reform the refugee system and more funding being placed in NGOs, they can receive it.


Nicholle Lamartina Palacios is a recent graduate of Yale University. She received her B.A. in Ethnicity, Race & Migration, with a concentration in Latino and African studies. She is a native New Yorker and comes from an Argentine household. She recently worked at the Bronx Defenders as a Policy & Community Outreach Intern. Currently, she is working with New Haven based activist group Unidad Latina en Acción on migrant issues, with a specific focus on unaccompanied Central American youth.

You can visit her personal blog, Let’s Talk Race, at this link. 
You can contact her at NicholleLP@gmail.com

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